Opinions on Comic Books

Shallow Waters: Tom King’s Attempt to Find Depth in Batman

Tom King has spent 51 issues trying to find the Flying Water Vase of Zenn-La.

Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire

The vase shows up in the first issue of The Vision, by King, Gabriel Walta, and Jordie Bellaire. It shows up on the 4th page, to be exact, and it appears in nearly every issue of the series. It comes to symbolize a great many things over 12 issues, but it’s meaning is always suggested, never spelled out. It is there to add depth to a story that is already complex and nuanced.

None of that is true about King’s run on Batman.

Part of that may be that Batman has such a long and storied history that trying to build your own corner of that world is difficult. So much has been said about Batman that trying to say something new seems virtually impossible. That seems to be King’s goal, though, and it’s commendable. So far it doesn’t seem feasible.

The fact that Batman, for all it’s psychological baggage and noir roots, is still a superhero comic and it is expected to act like one. There were no such expectations for The Vision, or Omega Men or Sheriff of Babylon. There were preconceived notions of what those books had to be like. There was no audience that needed to be considered.

But this is Batman.

King has grand ideas for his reportedly 100 issue run on Batman. His grand ideas are backed by wonderfully dramatic set pieces, moments are inspired and full of meaning. These are the bits that King excels at, the page that says something on the surface and beneath, that begs – demands – for a deeper reading. The vase is not a vase. The man dressed as a bat isn’t just a man dressed as a bat.

But so far King has run into a number of problems with not just getting to those moments, but with the moments themselves. The demand for a deeper reading is still there, but that deeper reading reveals nothing new, nothing complex or even interesting.

The culmination of this was Batman #50.

Proportional Response: Batman goes emo.

King made it clear from the start of his run that subtlety was off the table.

His first three lengthy arcs all have titles that begin with “I Am.” These are stories about Batman, then, although we know that going in.

In the first arc, “I Am Gotham,” Batman meets two Superman-level heroes, a brother and sister duo named Gotham and Gotham Girl, respectively. Here we see another reoccurring element in King’s run: the name of the arc being reflected by character or characters in the arc, even if the story is about Batman. Gotham is a strange name for a superhero, like Spider-man deciding to call himself New York. Calling his sister Gotham Girl suggests a dependent relationship.

Gotham the superhero is supposed to make us think of Superman. He’s supposed to represent what a Superman type character would be like in Gotham the city. We’re supposed to watch as this godlike individual with pure intentions is driven insane and ultimately killed because that’s what Gotham the city would do to such a person. Batman is Gotham. No other type of superhero can survive there.

Art by David Finch, Sandra Hope, and Jordie Bellaire
Art by David Finch, Sandra Hope, and Jordie Bellaire

That’s not much of a revelation, certainly not after 5 issues.

“I Am Suicide” is much the same, although with logistical difficulties that would begin to regularly creep up in King’s run. If there were doubts that the arc titles were meant to be literal, they are gone now, as Batman writes a letter to Catwoman telling her he nearly committed suicide when he was ten.

Art by Mikel Janin, Hugo Petrus, and June Chung

Yet another aspect of King’s run: his Batman is extremely forthcoming with his feelings. In The Vision, the description of a plant from another world is loaded with meaning that doesn’t need to be spelled out for us. In Batman, the Dark Knight tells us everything over and over again. It’s so extensive and strange that I’ve begun to think that maybe all 51 issues featured a Batman under the influence of the Psycho Pirate.

While they’re never named as such, Batman’s team in this book is the Suicide Squad, again reflecting the name of the arc.

The conclusion of King’s first trilogy of stories is “I Am Bane.” Bane is depicted as a larger than life force and he is coming to unleash hell on Gotham City, or specifically the one man who, as we’ve already established, IS Gotham City.

This arc introduces another of King’s favorite storytelling devices, the framing sequence. Here it’s juxtaposing Bane’s life with Bruce Wayne’s. It’s supposed to convey that these two characters are similar, thus Batman saying he is Bane in the name of the arc. In theory this would make their big fight more compelling, but the attempt to connect the two of them falls flat.

Truly, they are practically separated by birth. Art by David Finch, Danny Miki, and Jordie Bellaire
Art by David Finch, Danny Miki, and Jordie Bellaire
Art by David Finch, Danny Miki, and Jordie Bellaire

They’re stories aren’t similar. They are not two sides of the same coin. There’s no depth to their relationship and there’s nothing wrong with that. There doesn’t need to be more. The fact that it feels so heavy handed to create more meaning is proof that perhaps King is trying to push a square peg through a round hole.

The framing sequence allows King to yet again add Bruce’s parents to the story. I stopped counting after issue #30, but up until that point King has mentioned the Waynes in 50% of the issues he’d written. The death of his parents is an essential piece of the Batman story, but it’s also one that we all know. It doesn’t need to come up every other issue. It’s unnatural.

But the death of Batman’s parents is emotional short hand. It is the one universal chord of sadness in every Batman story ever told. Even if it’s not on the page (every other issue), it’s under the page. It’s impact is in every issue.

We know that, though. We don’t need reminded. But it the easiest way to attempt to create some kind of emotional response in, if not the readers, than the character. After “I Am” for three arcs and an unnaturally expansive letter, the death of Bruce’s parents seemed like a logical destination that King would visit over and over again.

The War of Jokes and Riddles doesn’t let up on the full court press, although it does, at least, refrain from being too overblown from issue to issue. It’s biggest problem (aside from the pacing and the interludes that killed all forward momentum) is that it’s a flashback story that we are continually told contains some event that will shatter Batman. The problem is that it’s a flashback story. Had the event truly been devastating to Batman in some way, we’d have seen its impact by now.

Yet the story is referenced multiple times by Batman in the months leading up to the story.

More puzzling is that there is a tragic event that happens during the War of Jokes and Riddles and yet it has no impact on Batman.

So let’s talk about Kite Man.

During the War of Jokes and Riddles, Batman forces former Joker minion Charles Brown to spy for him. He’s tasked with setting up a meeting that Batman can crash. He’s captured by the Riddler and gives up the location of the meeting. Then he’s captured by the Joker and comes clean about Batman and the Riddler. The Joker straps bombs to Brown and sends him to meet Batman. Brown sets off the bombs, but they’re duds, because this is the Joker we’re talking about.

Art by Clay Mann and Gabe Eltaeb

If that were the end of the story then I wouldn’t be talking about it, although Batman’s actions are still somewhat questionable given the danger Brown was in. But while scaring Brown might have been enough for the Joker, the Riddler wants more for his revenge. He poisons Brown’s son.

Kite-Man’s son dies because Batman forced his father to be his spy.

Batman, of course, swears he’ll bring the Riddler to justice, but that’s the extent of his commentary on the events. There’s no mention of what he did.

The little boy is dead because of Batman.

Period.

Batman’s complete disregard for his role in the child’s death is made worse by the fact that he was supposed to be protecting the boy while making Brown help him. Apparently there were no childless lackeys working for the Joker.

Art by Clay Mann and Gabe Eltaeb

If there was ever a time to see the overblown emoting that has defined the series from the start, this would have been it.

Situational Dumbness: Batman’s Awful Plans

If it’s possible to make the death of Brown’s son worse consider how awful Batman’s plan was. He had no way of protecting Brown’s son, apparently. Using Brown got him nothing. It was a mess.

We could pin that on the fact that this is a flashback story to the earlier days of Batman. The problem is that logistically stupid actions happen throughout King’s run, all for the sake of getting us from point A to point B. Again, King is great at creating wonderful moments in his comics, but getting to those moments has been painful in Batman.

The “I Am Suicide” arc is perhaps the most egregious example of this. Let’s look at Batman’s plan in that story.

First, it’s dependent upon Bane not killing him. It’s then dependent upon Batman un-breaking his own back. Then it’s dependent upon Bane being stupid enough to trust Catwoman. The Ventriloquist is supposed to be a vital in catching the Psycho Pirate, which he does by…knocking him unconscious. Every other member of the team could have done that, particularly given how many of them are adept at being sneaky.

Art by Mikel Janin and June Chung
Ah! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal! Art by Mikel Janin and June Chung

Taken individually, those points are questionable. As a whole, it’s, at the very least, problematic editing.

“I Am Bane” doesn’t help matters.

With Bane coming to town, Batman tells the Robins to leave. Aside from that point being debatable,Batman is awfully selective in who he protects and who he doesn’t. He wants to protect his sidekicks, but what about his other allies? What about the people who helped him, like Catwoman or the Bronze Tiger? And why is Gordon left out to dry?

Diatribe: What the hell is up with the end of Batman #16? Red Hood, Red Robin, and Nightwing are all hanging from nooses with blood running down their bodies. Even if you accept that they are actually still alive, why would they be? In the very next issue Batman says that they went after Bane. Why would he leave them alive?

Art by David Finch, Danny Miki, and Jordie Bellaire

Batman eventually frees a number of Bat villains to fight Bane. He also armed some of them. And they all decide to stay and fight as opposed to escaping. The goal, remember, is to establish a parallel between Batman and Bane and seeing how Bane dispatches Batman’s villains is one way to do it, but how that comes to be makes no sense.

Batman #29, the 4th part of the never ending War of Jokes and Riddles, is the perfect example of King’s ability to come up with wonderful set pieces that sound good in theory, but make absolutely no sense in execution.

Art by Mikel Janin, Hugo Petrus, and June Chung
Art by Mikel Janin, Hugo Petrus, and June Chung
Art by Mikel Janin, Hugo Petrus, and June Chung

The issue opens with Bruce Wayne hosting a dinner for the Riddler, the Joker, and their respective supporters. His goal is to broker some kind of peace to end the war raging throughout Gotham. The dinner is something his mother used to talk about.

It is, of course, ridiculous to think that any of the villains pictured here would join up with either the Joker or the Riddler. How does dinner even come about? Why would either side agree to it? Why would Bruce Wayne even think it would be a good idea?

At one point the Joker asks the Riddler about having to cut off someone’s head while the person is still alive, to and the Riddler admits it’s something he’s had to do. Then the Joker throws a knife at The Riddler, but he catches it between his palms, ninja style.

What?

Art by Mikel Janin, Hugo Petrus, and June Chung

As with every other villain in the Bat universe since the Snyder/Tynion/King group took over, the Riddler has been reduced to just another psychopath. He’s now cutting people’s heads off. And he’s a ninja. Being extremely intelligent and obsessed with proving how smart he is through riddles is apparently no longer enough.

The framing sequence in this issue is a solid idea. Using each course of this fancy pants meal to connect these moments is interesting. But it’s the kind of thing that would work when the involved parties are trying to outwit each other. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see Lex Luthor do with a couple of rivals. It makes no sense with these characters.

And that’s the issue. The series is filled with great ideas that are forced into a Batman shaped box. Nothing about the run has been organic.

The Bat and the Cat

King spends 18 issues on the wedding.

It may not seem like it, but as soon as Catwoman says yes, King spends the next 18 issues dropping our lovebirds into various situations, juxtaposed with various characters, so we can see how these two work.

But we don’t. We get platitudes and melodrama.

We get Catwoman and Talia talking about Batman with completely unnatural dialog, which is in keeping, really, with how Catwoman and Batman have been talking to each other. There’s the infamous double date with Superman and Lois Lane, Batman nearly having an affair with Wonder Woman in another dimension, and three issues of torture porn starring Booster Gold of all people.

Art by Joelle Jones and Jordie Bellaire

It’s all meant, in theory, to show us what Catwoman and Batman’s relationship is like, what the two of them are like together. But none of it does. The trip to see Talia was full of cliches about relationships and lacked any depth. The double date portrayed Batman in ways inconsistent with the characters. Batman’s near tryst with Wonder Woman takes place with Catwoman far away. The Booster Gold arc takes place in an alternate future.

None of it tells us anything about these two that we didn’t already know.

Again, the concepts sound cool in theory, but in the execution they fell flat.

The only relationship that shines over the course of these 18 issues is the one between Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne. King nailed that one, in part, I think, because he’s not trying to drill a deeper well with either character, and in part because Damian is a kid, so bursts of melodrama sound natural.

Art by Joelle Jones and Jordie Bellaire

I could nitpick on each of these stories (in particular the Booster Gold story), but none of them put a bow on the entire 51 issue run the way the wedding does. Because for the longest time I tried to figure out a succinct way to describe why King’s Batman run wasn’t working and the wedding issue gave it to me.

More exactly, Catwoman gave it to me.

Catwoman deciding she can’t marry Batman because if he’s happy he can’t keep being Batman is so…so…trite.

I would never have imagined using such a word to describe something by the writer of The Vision, yet here we are.

Batman’s inability to be happy for fear of no longer possessing the drive to be Batman is the starter homes of psycho analysis. It’s the training wheels of writing Batman. And now I’m desperately trying to avoid calling King’s run a “trite-cycle.”

Issue #50 is the culmination of years of swinging for the fences of depth and coming up empty.

The Good with the Bad

The frustrating thing about how the wedding issue goes down is that King established a wonderful dynamic between Catwoman and Batman that he did nothing with.

One of the reoccurring bits in King’s run is how Catwoman and Batman have very different memories of their first meeting. Batman’s is their original, pre-Crisis meeting. Catwoman’s is the post-Crisis, Year One version. They are radically different events.

Neither of them questions or argues about the fact that the other one has a much different recollection of when and how they first met, which also says volumes about their relationship, more so than anything we’ve learned over the course of 18 issues.

As bizarre as it may be, Catwoman is Batman’s idea of someone he’d want to marry. He romanticizes her to the point of holding on to an origin story which may not have even happened. It’s no mistake that he remembers the simpler, brighter version of their meeting.

The Catwoman from Batman #1 is who he thinks Selina is, who he wants her to believe, who he’s convinced himself she always has been. But that’s not who she is.

Art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson
Art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson

They’re both desperate to make this work, so neither questions the other’s story. It seems like Batman refuses to consider Catwoman’s version, while Catwoman seems to humor Batman. Either way, it’s dishonest on both ends, but more telling of Batman’s psyche.

This plays into the trite moment. Catwoman doesn’t know a Batman who is anything but grim. Batman remembers a time when when his life was yacht robberies and boom, zap, pow. That old Batman might not have been happy, but he was anything but grim. That old Batman could have been married and happy and continued fighting crime.

That’s not the Batman that Catwoman knew, though. And it might not even be a Batman that ever existed.

Art by David Mazzucchelli
Art by David Mazzucchelli
Art by David Mazzucchelli

The fact that they remember two different first meetings might be the best moment King has created during his entire run. But he has yet to do anything with it, so it’s been wasted.

For what it’s worth, this book has been full of amazing art. DC has done an excellent job of making sure that their flagship title is getting fantastic artists, even while coming out on a bi-weekly schedule.

King is one of my favorite current writers. I honestly can’t believe DC hasn’t collected Omega Men into a single, hardcover collection and that Grayson omnibus almost makes me reconsider my hatred of the omnibus format. Almost.

But the current Batman book is not good.

Perhaps, though, it’s necessary. As long as King is making money on a big IP, he can afford to write books like the aforementioned Vision and Omega Men or the Babylon books.

It’s probably a fair trade.

Probably.

1 comment on “Shallow Waters: Tom King’s Attempt to Find Depth in Batman

  1. Pingback: Weekly Whiskey: Comics Worth Your Money for 11/21/18 - A Comic Book Site

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